After Architectural Modernism

It was the summer of 1947. The Second World War was still a painful recent memory, and much of Europe was still a bombed-out shambles.  The Korean War was still three years in the future, and the Second Vatican Council wouldn’t convene its opening sessions for another fifteen years.  During this summer, a fifty year-old priest refugee from Nazi Germany, Fr. H. A. Reinhold, would give a series of lectures on the topic of “Liturgical Architecture” at the University of Notre Dame’s “first summer liturgical institute”—an annual gathering that would become a resistless force for liturgical change deserving of a historical study of its own.  Fr. Reinhold’s lectures, eventually published in 1952 in a little booklet entitled Liturgical Architecture, make for fascinating reading, given that here, in 1946, we find outlined all the frightful forms that would become requirements in church architecture in the years to come: fan-shaped seating (so-called “church-in-the-round”), blank white walls, a sterile minimalism in ecclesiastical art and design, geometrically “pure” forms defining “functionalist” spaces in modernist church buildings expressing the “spirit of the age,” an age of industrialism and mass-produced housing.  The eventual result?  The suburban living-room church.  Or the local suburban mall movie theater church.  Anything at all but a church looking like a church.

Duncan book coverWhat makes these lectures and the little book that followed it so fascinating is how unconsciously and absolutely uncritically Fr. Reinhold adopted the fundamental tenets of architectural modernism not only as his own, but also as the Church’s.  He declares that “the Church adopts no style as her own,” while extolling the principles of “functionalism,” “expressed structure” (that the exterior of a building should reflect the interior hierarchy of use), and that buildings should be understood as expressions of the “spirit of the age,” all of which were part and parcel of the project of the architectural modernism that begun in Germany’s Bauhaus in the 1920s and 30s and spread to America when the socialist Bauhaus architects and their fellow travelers fled from the Nazis.  In his delightfully irreverent book From Bauhaus to Our House, author Tom Wolfe has described the somewhat unexpected character of this pre-war European “invasion” of America:

All at once [says Wolfe], in 1937, the Silver Prince himself was here, in America. Walter Gropius; in person; in the flesh; and here to stay…. Other stars of the fabled Bauhaus arrived at about the same time: Breuer, Albers, Moholy-Nagy, Bayer, and Mies van der Rohe …. Here they came, uprooted, exhausted, penniless, men without a country, battered by fate ….

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As a refugee from a blighted land, [Gropius] would have been content with a friendly welcome, a place to lay his head, two or three meals a day until he could get on his own feet, a smile every once in a while, and a chance to work, if anybody needed him. And instead….

Well, Gropius was made head of the school of architecture at Harvard, and Breuer joined him there. Moholy-Nagy opened the New Bauhaus, which evolved into the Chicago Institute of Design…. [And] Mies was installed as dean of architecture at the Armour Institute of Chicago … It was embarrassing, perhaps … but it was the kind of thing one could learn to live with …. Within three years the course of American architecture had changed, utterly (Wolfe, 45f.).

So it was that when liturgists such as Fr. Reinhold turned their minds to church architecture, they breathed in, as it were, “the spirit of the age”: the Modernist currents that were blowing like a tornado through all the American schools of architecture.  It was embodied, for example, in the volume on Church Building in the Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism, edited by Henri Daniel-Rops, in which the author, Joseph Rykwert describes Corbusier, as “perhaps the greatest architect of our times,” and chastises church authorities for not having employed his talents earlier and more often.  Given the renowned ugliness of his efforts at the Dominican monastery of La Tourette, it’s a shame they employed them at all.  The front cover of that volume on Church Building proudly displayed the modernist church designed by Marcel Breuer at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. This modernist approach to Church design dominated the infamous Environment and Art in Church Architecture from 1978, a document that though never ratified by the bishops, was treated by many Catholic dioceses as the Bible of style for all new buildings built after its publication, even though 34 of the 39 photographs illustrating the text are of buildings designed by one person, Frank Kacmarcik, the man who had years earlier served as the liturgical consultant for the aforementioned Benedictine Abbey church at Collegeville designed by Marcel Breuer.  Needless to say, all 39 of the photographs contain images of modernist design elements.

What is clear now in retrospect, I would suggest, is that the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council when they hit America’s shores were interpreted through the lens of the categories of architectural modernism that by that time dominated the perspective of the liturgical reformers, who in fact, knew next-to-nothing about the actual history of architecture or in particular of church design.  Thus the liturgical reforms, as imperfect as they were, were also used to enforce building standards on all new churches in the Modernist style or not at all.

Needless to say, it is an approach to Church architecture and design that often enough still dominates many contemporary discussions about church architecture as well.  It lives on in the minds and hearts of the priests who studied these works in their youth and remain convinced to this day, though the world has moved on, that churches should look “modern” or else Catholics will be left out in the cold.  How else to explain the Modernist atrocities in Los Angeles, Milwaukee, and San Francisco?

No one has been more dedicated to the project of recovering the great traditions of classical church architecture than Duncan Stroik at the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture, founder of the Institute for Sacred Architecture and editor of its flagship journal, Sacred Architecture.  Each year, he and his colleagues educate dozens of classically-trained architects and teach them the necessary rudiments of beautiful church design.  Year after year, their students produce designs for some of the most beautiful church buildings imaginable of all sizes, from simple small chapels to large cathedrals. And yet year after year, parishes continue to build ugly buildings designed by incompetent architects who know next-to-nothing about the history of Catholic Church architecture, and thus, needless to say, almost nothing at all about how to go about designing a Church of lasting and transcendent beauty.  To my mind, this is akin to forcing young painters trained and licensed by Michelangelo to sit on the bench while children adept at finger-painting adorn the walls of your living room.  The results might be quaint, but not really for adults, and one certainly wouldn’t want to have to pay for the privilege of being forced to suffer in perpetuam from such visual chaos.  But that’s what many modern parishes continue to do.  This foolishness will only stop when parish members are better educated about the possibilities of better, more beautiful churches.  Which is another way of saying, they are in desperate need of this book.

san francisco cathedralNow, if you find the comparison with Michelangelo in that previous sentence a little over-the-top, fine, I have no doubt Prof. Stroik would agree with you, but I ask you to please take a look at the picture of the chapel on the front cover of the present volume.  That’s not one of the great old churches from somewhere in Europe (near Prague or Vienna perhaps?)—no, that’s Duncan Stroik’s Our Lady of the Holy Trinity Chapel designed and built for Thomas Aquinas College in California, and there simply hasn’t been a more beautiful church built in this country in the past fifty years.  Such churches can still be built.  Dare to dream.  You too can have a church like that, and it doesn’t cost that much more than an ugly modernist box.  But you have to know a little something about church architecture, and above all, you have to hire the right architect!  Reading a good selection of these twenty-three previously published essays by Stroik will teach you a lot.  And merely looking at the more-than 170 amazing photographs and drawings will inspire you to envision the right sort of building.

The book will also serve as a nice introduction to the topic of church architecture.  It has all the virtues of a collection of essays—nothing too long or overly complicated—but it necessarily has some of the weaknesses as well: collections of essays don’t always allow for the development of a consistent theme throughout, and there is some unavoidable overlap.  No one can write articles for fourteen years and not repeat himself.  I’ve been writing articles in earnest for a little over two years, and I find myself repeating myself all the time.  Indeed, the opening paragraphs of this essay are a repetition of something I wrote five years ago.  Now some people love collections of essays—I’m personally a fan of C. S. Lewis’s essays, for example, and consider them among the best things he ever wrote—but other people consider collections of essays in book form something of a “cheat.”  I disagree, but to each his own.  The latter group may not find this book to their taste, but they can also probably learn some things from it nonetheless.

The chapters are organized admirably into four major sections: (1) The Church as a Sacred Place: Principles of Church Design, (2) Church Architecture Today, (3) From Bauhaus to God’s House: Modernism and Modernity, and (4) Renaissance and Renewal.  The last of these holds a special significance for those who know Prof. Stroik’s architectural work, given that he is a renowned specialist in the Renaissance styles, having done his doctoral dissertation on the work of the Renaissance architect Adrea Palladio.  In many ways, for Prof. Stroik, “Renewal” means a return to the architectural practices and styles of the Italian Renaissance.  There is, accordingly, somewhat less of a focus within these pages on, for example, the Romanesque or the Gothic styles, which might strike some people as strange.  For decades until the modernist assault, “church architecture” in America meant either Romanesque or Neo-Gothic.  The number of classical Renaissance buildings in major cities and suburbs was thus relatively fewer.

Make no mistake: Prof. Stroik knows and understands the Gothic and Romanesque, and one can find important examples of both within these pages.  It’s just that for many of us who haven’t traveled as widely in Italy, we would probably expect in place of this volume’s appendix on baldacchinos (the large canopy over the altar) a long discussion instead of, say, stained glass windows or the clerestory.  Different authors emphasize different parts of the tradition.  Stroik and company are great admirers of the Italian Renaissance, more so than many earlier books on American church architecture would have been, but the author shows equal facility with other styles as well.

If I have one quibble with the book, it is simply that the author’s broad knowledge of the architectural world sometimes blinds him to the fact that not everyone is acquainted with the buildings or artworks he mentions in his essays—that is to say, not everyone has seen Raphael’s paintings of the Disputa del Sacramento (mentioned on p. 20 but pictured nowhere in the book), nor without photos would most people really be able to comprehend a statement such as:

Within the multiplicity of centralized church types: circular, oval, octagonal, or cruciform, there is still the definition of a separate sanctuary rather than a mere freestanding altar.  We see this at some of Christendom’s greatest works of art: San Vitale in Ravenna, the Palatine Chapel at Aachen, Santa Maria dell Consolazione at Todi, and Santa Maria ad Martyres in Rome.

Most of the churches listed would likely be completely foreign to most people (especially since most people don’t know that Santa Maria ad Martyres is the official ecclesiastical name of what is usually called “the Pantheon”).  Pictures of several would have been helpful.  Instead we get a very small snapshot of the Parthenon that doesn’t really illustrate the author’s point.

So too, for example, on p. 10, when the author compares the Church of Corpus Christi in Aachen, Germany, designed by the Modernist Rudolf Schwarz “with churches designed by Ralph Adams Cram, for example the Cathedral of St. John the Divine—built about the same time,” it was helpful that the editors included a picture of the aforementioned Church of Corpus Christi in Aachen on that page, but it would have been even more helpful yet if we had been given even one picture of a church designed by Ralph Adams Cram, let us say, for example the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.  Instead what we find on this page are pictures of churches not mentioned in the article—pictures that are interesting and instructive in their own right, but not as illustrative as making sure that the page contained pictures of all the buildings actually mentioned in the article.

This lack of coordination between the photos and the text is another drawback due to the fact that these articles were originally published separately, many of them in the journal Sacred Architecture.  Once they were all brought together, it would have been a monumental task to go through them all to cross-reference every mention of a building with other places in the book where a picture of that building could be found.  I understand the reticence of undertaking this monumental task, but it would have been helpful to the reader, especially to the uninitiated beginners to whom the book would in other ways be extremely helpful.

And that brings me to my last comment.  Although the book reflects a deep knowledge of the church’s architectural and liturgical traditions—I always learn something new when I read an article by Duncan Stroik—yet this is a book perfectly accessible to beginners.  It contains none of the technical jargon of the architectural discipline, nor any of the trendy post-modern jibberish so common in essays in art interpretation.  There are no complicated engineering diagrams, nor are there effusive passages about the “negative flow dynamics of a building’s potential energy” or its “dynamic cultural standoffishness.”  Instead we get clear, straightforward descriptions and a well-informed, common sense approach to church architecture.

Read it, and you’ll learn a lot, not only about the glories of church architecture in the past, but about what it can become again.  What it become again, that is, if we can just get our heads out of the clouds of architectural Modernism’s abstract geometrical forms and plant our feet firmly back in the embodied human-scale forms of the great classical architectural traditions of building.  We can have churches once again that are built solidly, with beauty, and yet that make our spirits soar, as opposed to buildings more appropriate for watching a large-screen television or drinking trendy martinis or for imprisoning inmates.  Read this book, and dare to dream.

Editor’s note: The lead image above depicts the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles.


  • Randall B. Smith

    Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-12 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

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